March 03, 2008

Someone's word order is wrong on the internet

A couple of weeks ago, xkcd explained the intellectual dynamics of networked discourse:

But according to a comment by Wulak at the Volokh Conspiracy:

It should say:


Ted F mock-agreed:

Wulak is correct. The strip steps on its punchline. I am going to write an angry email to the author expressing my dismay.

When the strip first came out, I noticed Randall Monroe's word-order choice, but my reaction was the opposite. I thought that he got it exactly right, though at first I couldn't figure out exactly why.

It's true that if you thought that "on the internet" was meant as a reduced relative clause, then you'd be reluctant to see it extraposed to the end of the sentence. You might describe an inaccurate gas bill as (a), but not as (b):

(a) Someone from the gas company is mistaken.
(b) ?Someone is mistaken from the gas company.

On the other hand, if "on the internet" is a locative adverbial phrase, then it would be normal to put it at the end of the sentence, as in "It's raining in Paris". So both word-orders are perfectly grammatical, and since the comment's crucial point seems to be the wrongness, it would make sense to pick the order where wrong is final. I did an informal poll of acquaintances -- without showing them the cartoon or explaining the context -- and most of them agreed with Wulak in picking "Someone on the internet is wrong".

But that word order misses the poetic resonance with "Something is wrong".

Consider the following table of Google hit counts:

something is __
someone is __

"Something is wrong" implies that in principle, everything ought to be right. Or at least, right enough. The sense of wrong involved is something like the OED's sense 6: "Not right or satisfactory in state or order; in unsatisfactory or bad condition; amiss".

Consider these two lines from Ted Hughes' poem Women:

3 A hushed animation, sombre and uneasy.
4 Something is wrong and everybody is aware of it.

Substituting "someone is wrong" into that line turns an ordinary example of social discomfort into a curious joke. When people are wrong, it's generally in OED sense 5.b "Not in consonance with facts or truth; incorrect, false, mistaken." A diversity of opinions, even about matters of fact, is normal, and so in that sense, someone is pretty much always wrong. This is normally not something that has to be put right before you can rest easy.

And that's why "Someone is wrong on the internet" is funnier than "Someone on the internet is wrong."

[Jonathan Weinberg writes:

I agree with you entirely, but I want to make more explicit a point I think is already implicit in your post: What's funny about the sentence is the delayed recognition. That is, we read it as "Someone is wrong [huh? so what? people are wrong all the time] on the Internet [oh, on the Internet! well, yeah, I guess that is a different story. If someone is wrong *on the Internet*, it needs to be put right immediately. I can relate to that.]


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 3, 2008 07:26 AM